(12/11/2010)
All the hoopla regarding new safety regulations for miners following the death of 29 West Virginia miners in the Upper Big Branch disaster came to a halt in Washington this week.

New standards promised to family members of Upper Big Branch mine victims are dead in the water.

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives blocked efforts by Democratic leaders to resurrect a major mine safety reform bill before the end of the year when the GOP will take over the House in 2011.

Also this week, retiring Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship is refusing to testify in the investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, taking the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination.

Blankenship had been subpoenaed to testify about the April 5 blast, while other Massey employees have also refused to speak to investigators using the Fifth Amendment.

Massey has the worst safety and environmental record in the USA, including the most deaths.

The defeated bill was written to cover dozens of loopholes regarding mining practices - the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act.

The vote was 214 to 193, with 26 members not voting, well short of the two-thirds needed for the rules suspension.

According to the official roll call vote, only one Republican voted to bring up the bill.

West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall voted in favor, while Republican Shelley Moore Capito voted against.

Congresswoman Shelly Moore Capito voted against the bill two days after her office issued a statement commemorating "National Miners Day," an occasion she used to attack the Obama administration's efforts to crack down on mountaintop removal mining.

Rep. Capito called the proposed legislation "premature," with all the facts not known about the Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 .

"In all, the Democrats bill being considered today does little to address mine safety, but rather imposes severe penalties on businesses, introduces dramatic regulatory changes, and promotes unnecessary litigation which will hurt those mines and miners operating in good faith on behalf of worker safety," Capito said.

The current law relies on "patterns of violations," with loopholes that invites delays and allows some coal mine operators to game the system.

Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine was a perfect example of an operator repeatedly skirting the law and putting workers' lives in the cross-hairs.

The Upper Big Branch mine alone was subject to 515 violations and 54 withdrawal orders in 2009, more than any other mine in the USA.

Red flags were waving about this mine's repeated unwarrantable failures.

Because Massey indiscriminately appealed many of these violations, it evaded stronger sanctions that would have improved conditions and saved lives.

The dead bill set clear and fair criteria to identify mines with significant safety problems and eliminate the incentives for mine owners that game the system.

An example of gaming the system, Massey Energy, with its lengthy record of environmental and safety abuses, amassed an estimated $2.4 billion dollars worth of fines.

In 2008, a federal judge approved a deal that required Massey to pay a record $20 million fine on thousands and thousands of unpaid violations across the Appalachian coalfields.

The bill included important improvements to protect miners who speak out about safety problems, and would have granted federal investigators more powers to demand information after mine accidents.

The defeated bill is the result of months of deliberations with stakeholders and experts, including miners, families of victims, academics, state officials, and various sectors of the mining industry.


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